Recently, I had a proper manicure in a nail and waxing salon. It was my first time in such an establishment because I’m very scared of having hot wax dribbled on me and then pulled from my quite delicate, pathetic skin. This isn’t the only reason though. I’ve always associated beauty salons with women who care a lot about how they look. I’ve been guilty of thinking that ‘low-maintenance’ is an adjective that can tell you a lot about a person, and my not wearing lip gloss somehow means I’m down-to-earth and valid as a human being. Then I wandered into this salon to give my friend some pre-leg wax moral support and found that all of my prejudices took a sweet-smelling, colourful, glossy beating.
My nails were done by a woman wearing a lot of make-up, a hot pink top and a dark tan. We chatted a bit whilst she filed and buffed and painted. I was really relieved that she was easy to talk to because the idea of someone faffing with my hands in stony silence wasn’t a hugely welcome prospect – it taps into my middle class anxieties about people doing things for me while I sit on my arse (every time a waiter or waitress speaks to me I thank them about eighteen times, for fear of seeming ungrateful). She mentioned that her mum had gone away for the weekend and rather than inviting anyone round for hard drinking, as she would have when she was sixteen, she was looking forward to finishing reading Philomena. Then she asked me if I’d read any good books lately, so I told her I was doing an English Literature degree so no, definitely not. And it turned out that she’d read nearly all the classics I’ve read, and more besides. She could talk in depth about Dracula whilst she painted my nails ‘black cherry’. She was smart, she was funny, and she made my nails look fucking fantastic. I was ashamed of myself when I left because I knew exactly what assumptions I’d made about her when I first sat down, hands outstretched. I assumed that she wasn’t as educated as me, that she wasn’t as well-read as me and all because she was wearing more make-up? I’m a tool, basically, but at least I’ve learnt my lesson now.
When a woman is described as ‘high-maintenance’, it’s nearly always a criticism. According to an example on Urban Dictionary, “high-maintenance is primarily used to refer to attractive straight women” (Well shit, sorry for fulfilling your definition of attractive TOO much), or “a gluttonous queen, narcissistic and mean”. If you’re labelled as ‘high-maintenance’ it seems to remove any other part of your personality. If you like showing your cleavage off and you’ve got really expensive hair extensions, then there’s no way you can be smart or kind or really easy to get on with and actually not ‘high-maintenance’ at all. And if there are any of the ‘what about men blah blah winge’ brigade reading this, then think about any man you might know of who waxes his chest or wears fake tan. He might have the piss taken out of him or be called a tit, but it doesn’t lead to the complete and utter defamation of his character. The aftermath of being called a tit is about four seconds long.
‘High-maintenance’ doesn’t translate as ‘She really takes care of herself, she’s always impeccably dressed and presented’, it has way too much baggage. It translates as ‘She takes forever to get ready, she’s such hard work’. It’s ammunition used against women. It’s a reference to her being a glossy haired tyrant who insists on really expensive presents or special attention. And then there’s the ‘low-maintenance’ crowd, like myself, who can sometimes end up feeling a bit smug and self-satisfied, as though we’re different to the ‘high-maintenance’ women.
I’m not saying that there isn’t a problem with our readiness to rip hair off our bodies, and hide all of those natural things that have somehow been deemed ‘unattractive’. When I indulge in Channel 4 shock-documentaries about boob jobs gone wrong and arse implants, I can see a lot of mental illness going on. If you want your arse to look as firm as a Tempur mattress, you probably have a dim view of your natural body, and so your state of mind probably isn’t great. So body modification is incredibly problematic from a feminist perspective, especially when it’s rammed down our throats in the media like it’s normal and expected. So, personally, I don’t think I’ve really worked out where that line is between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ or ‘actually that’s okay’ and ‘this shit’s really misogynistic’. What I do know though is we can debate this body hair thing as much as we want, but it’s still just as bad to look down on women who do want to wax themselves as it is for some bloke to lament his girlfriend’s fanny hair and insist she get rid of it in the first place.
I felt comfortable in that salon. It was nice to be in an all-female space (yes, they do treatments for men, but there weren’t any in at the time) for a while and talk to other women about things we happened to be interested in. It was a bit like being in the Destiny’s Child video for ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’. And SO many different kinds of women walked in. Different ages, different races, potentially different sexualities. I’ve found a diverse space full of like-minded people who will make my nails look beautiful at a very reasonable price. I think we need to stop this vilification of girly, feminine things. I don’t know why I wanted Barbies when I was little, or why I like wearing heels now that I’m a grown woman. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, I don’t know if my family ever consciously or unconsciously gendered me, or if it was adverts on TV or things I saw other children doing. Having a particular attitude to the way I look, however, hasn’t made me any less of a feminist. You can have both, you can definitely BE both.
One of my best friends and I are trying to reclaim the word ‘slut’ to make it complimentary (between ourselves, we’re not about to go calling strangers ‘sluts’, they understandably wouldn’t know what we were trying to do without a lot of no doubt drunken, incoherent explanation on our part). Maybe we should all try to reclaim the loaded term that is ‘high-maintenance’ and remove the misogyny from it. It now simply means ‘taking pride in one’s appearance, wanting to look a certain way’. And that could mean anything. That could mean false nails and eyelashes, or it could mean you’re a cyber punk. All I know is, no one should be made to feel like shit for caring what they look like.